Gods and Pathogens

What does piety have to do with public health? In several recent rulings concerning restrictions on in-person religious services during the pandemic, the Supreme Court has repeatedly confronted the question, but it is hardly a new one. Humans have probably been asking similar questions for as long as they have clustered together in sufficient densities to sustain the spread of pandemic pathogens: which is to say, for as long as they have been recording their history. Pandemics and piety are sometimes opposed protagonists in well-known artifacts of that history. Homer’s Iliad opens with the god Apollo, angered by the Greek king Agamemnon’s mistreatment of his priest, driving “the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished.” Until the prophets were consulted and the god appeased, “the corpse fires burned everywhere.” And in the Hebrew Bible it is not only the Egyptians who are punished by plagues. When the Israelites “lost patience” in Numbers 21 and “spoke against God and against Moses,” “God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel.” Only when the sinners confessed their errors did God teach Moses the cure. We cannot call either of these two examples from roughly three millennia ago “historical,” since we cannot be sure that either of these events actually occurred. But they certainly teach us something about the long history of human reaction to pandemic. In both we see theodicy at work: that is, an attempt to understand and to justify an epidemiological catastrophe in terms of the intentional action of gods or God — in these instances punitively, a plague as punishment for some error or sin in the people or the polity. As King Edward III of England put it in 1348, when the pandemic known as the bubonic plague or Black

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